What the Essex case tells us about the current state of migrant smuggling from Europe into the UK

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The devastating events of last month in Essex involving the deaths of 39 people traveling in the back of a lorry have generated an onslaught of commentary concerning the current state of migrant smuggling from Europe into the UK. Most of this reporting has justifiably focused on the people who died and the impact of their loss on their families. Many academics and policy experts have also spoken at length about the deaths in the context of border security and immigration controls, poignantly articulating how clandestine travel often constitutes the only option available to those with no other legal, safe or dignified paths to travel.

Unfortunately, many of the more critical articulations have become a mere backdrop to the harrowing but cliché narratives and stereotypes concerning irregular migrants and smuggling facilitators that emerge after every single migrant-related accident of a similar magnitude occurs.  In other words, the claims circulated in the media and in the political statements made in the aftermath of what have become all-too common incidents worldwide are by now nothing other than predictable.

Think of the claims of smuggling groups becoming increasingly sophisticated, constituted by secret, dangerous ethnic gangs –ranging from Bulgarian to Chinese to Irish mafias; of their emerging new and dangerous routes; of smuggling undergoing market adaptations and its actors’ ability to manipulate complex technological equipment. And of the terrifying accounts of migrant suffering labelling smugglers as inherently evil and immoral (a line that by reducing smuggling to moralistic terms further reduces the ability to engage in evidence-informed debate) and that depict their “human cargo” as naïve, desperate, vulnerable and racialized. (Think also here of how the claim of the victims being “Chinese” had to be embarrassingly amended as reports of Vietnamese families coming forward looking for their loved ones began to emerge).

Words like sophistication, complexity, adaptation, resilience, structure and the like are also reflective of our limited empirical awareness on smuggling. True is that smuggling shows significant levels of adaptation. Yet this is common of all forms of market activity, licit or illicit, and not of smuggling alone. And to call it sophisticated professionalises an activity which outcomes often reveal lack of coordination and the absence of solid communication ties.  If at all, Essex stands as a textbook case of migrant smuggling, nothing else. And rather than presenting unprecedented, unique or standout traits, the case suggests that smuggling dynamics have in fact remained devastatingly unchanged, to the point that the 39 people who lost their lives last October followed the exact same trajectory of those who died in an almost identical incident in 2000, traveling from Zeebrugge before arriving to the port of Purfleet in Essex.

Why lorries?

Smuggling people in the back of lorries is a tactic systematically used by those who facilitate migrants’ clandestine journeys into the United States and Europe. The reason is quite simple: the likelihood of detection is slim. It is true that one could cite corruption as a factor. Perhaps even defective or limited equipment. But the key element of this tactic’s success is the very demands established by international trade and the way customs enforcement measures have responded to them.

Around the world commercial transport – and the people who drive them – are subjected to strict timelines given production levels, customer demands, the nature of the merchandise they transport, etc. The ability to transit expeditiously is in turn facilitated by multiple trade agreements, that also limit the kinds and the nature of inspection to which vehicles, containers and the like are subjected. Screening every single vehicle going through checkpoints, customs, etc. would significantly reduce processing times and as a result, profits. The reduced likelihood of inspection – the result of specific algorithms – creates a window of opportunity for those willing to take the risk and engage in contraband activities –including, among many other practices, the smuggling of migrants.

Why now?

This is not the first time lorries are used by truck drivers to smuggle migrants into the UK, and it is unlikely to be the last (although smuggling activities have most likely come to a temporary halt as a result of the also temporary stepped-up scrutiny following the events at Essex).  Anecdotal evidence points to a recent increase in the cases involving attempts by migrants to cross the English Channel. Yet official data concerning these events pertain to the domain of police and intelligence agencies only, and are not widely released to the public. This makes any conclusions concerning the number of smuggling attempts speculative at best, not to mention there is no effective way to determine how many of the latter are successful. It is also impossible to establish the exact number of people who are detained, get injured, die or go missing in the process. Furthermore, from media coverage alone, it is clear that smuggling attempts on and across the Channel involve a vast range of methods and crossing points.

On the basis of the data available at this time, I argue there are at least three potential ways to explain variations in smuggling activities across the English Channel in recent months:

  1. Rumours and uncertainty over Brexit and what it may bring about (namely significant increases in border and migration enforcement and controls) may be being used by smuggling facilitators as part of their sales pitch to migrants and/or their families, so that these speed-up their travel plans.
  2. Migrants and/or their families themselves, in response to the very same rumours, may feel the urge to embark on clandestine journeys prior to changes to regulatory practices take place, leading them to pursue smuggling options when legal travel paths have failed/are unavailable.
  3. It may also be that business has really not experienced much change. Failed attempts always take place and are part of smuggling facilitators’ calculations. If at all, the Essex events points at the continued reliance on lorries as a smuggling tactic. However, the latest incident may be used by smuggling groups as a recruitment tool (that is, smuggling facilitators may be using the case to set themselves apart from others, claiming their journeys are safer or more successful than those facilitated by other groups).

All three scenarios invariably involve an increase in costs, but also reliance on smaller ports, distant/remote points of departure and vehicles with limited possibility of being monitored or inspected, and under conditions where the likelihood of people to receive assistance in the event of an emergency is slim.

Why lorry drivers?

While the devastating nature of Essex’s events could lead one to demonize lorry drivers, or to engage in the unproductive argument that only evil people would place others under extremely dangerous conditions for profit, it is important to examine the conditions faced by those in the UK transportation and trucking industry. But before that, there are two important caveats to mention: one is the extremely limited research and data available on migrant smuggling cases in this particular industry. The second is that the data available do not involve UK-specific cases. Having said that, there are some general observations that can be made.

The trucking industry is one of high stress. It involves long hours, exhausting hauls, and constant demands on part of industry clients, but also of owners, who lease their vehicles to people attracted by the promise of high monetary returns. Trucking also involves significant expenses that often must be covered by drivers, including fuel, insurance, repairs, training and licensing fees, in addition to leasing costs. Delays on deliveries or other mistakes can cost drivers their earnings, or considerable portions of them. As a result, actual profits can be quite limited, especially for new or unexperienced drivers, who lack know-how or extensive/reliable connections. It is easy to rack up significant debt as a result. The job also implies long periods of time being away from home and family. It is also a quite sedentary occupation, what may lead to overweight, malnourishment and insomnia; substance and alcohol abuse have been documented by researchers as widespread among UK drivers.

In my prior experience as a criminal investigator, it was common for drivers facing charges for their participation in smuggling attempts to present high levels of financial precarity. The potential for high returns were cited by drivers themselves as the key factor leading to their criminal involvement. Here, however, said potential must be interpreted with caution. US court data from smuggling cases similar to the one in Essex suggest that the amounts drivers receive as a result of their participation are not particularly high. James Bradley Jr., a driver from Texas who was convicted in 2018 for the deaths of 10 migrants who perished of suffocation on the back of his lorry (it was argued that he could have been transporting between 70 and 200 persons) was paid slightly over €5.000.  Tyrone Williams, convicted for the deaths of 19 migrants in 2003 also in Texas, received €6.700 for his services. Court records also reveal that drivers accepted to engage in smuggling as one-time events to cover personal expenses, to prepare for the upcoming birth a child, to cope with illness and medical bills, and to reduce acquired debt. (As a side note, and while it may sound counterintuitive, truck drivers are also often the ones who make the calls to report these incidents to police).

What will happen next?

Around the world, there is a lack of political will to change the restrictions states have imposed to human mobility, and in particular, those imposed upon people from countries with limited access to documents and tools that allow them to travel in legal, safe and dignified ways. Furthermore, for international trade is the backbone of the EU’s economy, the role its mechanisms played in the context of the Essex case is likely to remain unmentioned, or to be discussed under a critical light.

The answer however, is certainly not the implementation of additional restrictions, increased monitoring or surveillance. These continue to simply create an illusion of control – what multiple scholars have referred to as  “the border spectacle” –and have scant if any impact at improving the safety of those who have no other option but to travel clandestinely. In fact, stepped up controls and enforcement have been historically identified as the drivers behind migrants’ decisions to rely on smuggling services, and on more dangerous and remote mechanisms and trajectories, where the likelihood of being detected, but also that of receiving assistance or being rescued are slim.

The events in Essex have also brought back the calls to bring the so-called smugglers to justice. This has also been proven to have negligible impact at improving migrant safety. First, because hardly any smugglers are ever prosecuted, let alone identified. Cases like the one at Essex, where the people allegedly behind the migrants’ journeys have been identified are uncommon. If at all, counter-smuggling operations are highly effective at enabling the detection and removal of people traveling irregularly, who are often simply returned to their countries of origin without their need for protection being identified.  It has now come to light that one of the women who died in the Essex case had in fact been deported from the UK a few days earlier, and opted to travel in the lorry as a backup plan. Had the lorry been detected prior to the unnecessary deaths of the 39 people it carried, these would have been immediately removed from the UK. It is again unknown how many failed smuggling attempts are regularly detected by UK authorities, for their lack of deaths or human drama generate scant media fanfare.

There will be no lack of speculation concerning the case in the weeks to come. What matters is that 39 people are dead and their mourning families are seeking answers. But perhaps the most devastating aspect is that the migration enforcement and trade practices that led to their deaths will remain unchanged, and that for that very matter, the likelihood of another catastrophic event of this nature to occur is only a matter of time.


Gabriella Sanchez, Research Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC)

The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.